The Central Asian Republic of Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union until independence in 1991. Its capital is Ashgabat and the main language spoken is Turkmen. Turkmenistan is mainly desert, flanked by two populated strips of land. It is known for its large gas reserves but despite the income they generate most people live in poverty.

Turkmenistan is also known for its autocratic rulers, each of whom has become the focus of a personality cult. In March 2022, Serdar Berdymukhamedov became the third president of the authoritarian state, following his father Kurbanguly (who had become president in February 2007) and Saparmurat Niyazov (who died in December 2006).

President Niyazov held dictatorial power from soviet times and styled himself Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen), making himself president for life and spending public money on grandiose projects, while slashing social welfare. He tightly controlled the army, police, justice system, economy and the press.

President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov moved towards a less repressive system, and restored pensions, but the government still tightly controls religious and political activity, trade unions and the media and closely monitors internet use. Religion is controlled by the government’s Commission for Work with Religious Organisations, established in summer 2015, which must approve all religious literature and any new places of worship. All religious communities must be registered.

Constitutionally, there is freedom of religion, but this is limited in practice to Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy: other religions (especially Jehovah’s Witnesses) face severe repression and harassment, and even Islam is tightly controlled because of the fear of terrorism. Muslims worship in government-built and controlled mosques, and in recent years at least 14 mosques in the capital have been bulldozed because the authorities said they had been built without permission. Some Muslims have been imprisoned in labour camp for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. Jehovah’s Witnesses face a particular problem because military service is compulsory for all young men and they, as conscientious objectors, face arrest and a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment, despite being willing to do any form of alternative, non-military service.

Christians in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan’s Christians are mostly ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Armenians, and by far the majority of these are Russian Orthodox. There are about 1,000 evangelicals.

The government is hostile to any independent Christian activity and the police target evangelicals. They face arrest, interrogation, heavy fines and occasionally imprisonment, especially for meeting in unregistered gatherings, and religious literature is confiscated. Police have raided summer camps and detained teenagers for hours without food or water. Secret police from the Ministry of State Security carry out surveillance of known or suspected evangelicals and try to recruit agents to infiltrate and inform on gatherings.

It is very difficult for churches other than Russian Orthodox to register; very few have been able to register, and once registered they still face harassment. They are monitored and are closed if three violations of the restrictive regulations are recorded.

Religious literature may be sold by the Russian Orthodox church, though it must be stamped as approved by the government’s Commission. Christians from other churches have been unable to register a Bible Society to distribute Bibles.

At the time of independence there were only one or two ethnic Turkmen Christians, but the number has increased to about 1,000. Turkmen who become Christians run the risk of losing their jobs and they are often pressurised to return to Islam. Several Turkmen pastors have been beaten, heavily, fined, imprisoned or exiled.

In October 2010, Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev was sentenced (on false charges) to four years in prison, with “forcible medical treatment”. He was released from labour camp in February 2012 among a group of about 230 prisoners freed under amnesty but the police warned him not to resume church gatherings for worship.

2016 Religion Law

A new Religion Law was approved in the Mejlis (Parliament) in March 2016 and came into force in April, replacing the much-amended 2003 Religion Law. The new law requires all religious communities to re-register and makes registration even more difficult as it increases the minimum number of adult citizens who must apply for legal status for a religious community from five to fifty. Many applications have been refused, forcing groups to meet illegally – some churches meet secretly in cafés and restaurants. The president claimed a new law was needed because of the worldwide rise of terrorism and religious extremism.

In 2018, six evangelical churches appealed to the president for permission to register, have their own buildings for services and open a Christian book shop but they did not receive a reply.

(Forum 18/Operation World/Voice of the Martyrs/World Watch List)